MODESTO — In May, she'll walk with her Davis High classmates, a mortar board on her head and a straight-A average tucked in her belt.
Not bad for a refugee who entered high school way behind and without knowing a lick of English.
Ronza Sampuor heads to college speaking five languages and knowing that if she tries hard enough, she can succeed at anything. She has the award to prove it.
Sampuor was the choice of the Stanislaus chapter of the Association of California School Administrators for its Every Student Succeeding award. The award honors "students who have succeeded against challenges, gone beyond expectations or simply won the hearts of their teachers and other staff," the association news release says.
Sampuor has done all of those.
A native of Iraq, she and her family fled in 2006 after receiving death threats. In 2009, they settled in Modesto, and the four children struggled to master the language and pick up their schooling after 2½ years in hiding.
"I forgot everything. I even forgot how to divide," said Sampuor, who completed school through sixth grade in Iraq. She started as a freshman at Davis, speaking Arabic and Assyrian but no English.
"The hardest thing was I didn't know English. The culture was different. I was scared to be with other people," she recalled.
But the Language Institute at Davis High, a program for new immigrants, was custom-made to help new arrivals cope. An inculturation course that lead teacher Lindsey Bird helped design has students do projects and presentations on what for U.S. natives is second nature.
Everything's a revelation
Songs and customs of U.S. holidays, birthday parties, how to order pizza, hamburgers and french fries were all revelations, she said. In Iraq, "It wasn't normal (for girls) to hang out with guys," she said.
"We had to learn gestures, body language," Sampuor said, for social situations and as part of learning how to apply for jobs.
"The teachers did whatever we needed. They were there after school, they came in early. When I couldn't get a ride, Miss Bird drove me home," Sampuor said.
"They help you get more confidence they don't put you in classes with Americans until your English is better," she added with a quiet laugh.
She got two B's that year and the next, she says ruefully, but by junior year, those were behind her. She took regular high school classes, with the Americans, and got straight A's even in Spanish and French.
Her older sister and younger brothers also have fared well in school, she said. Her parents, Albert Marko and Nazik Toma, expected no less.
"They're proud about me. They like to brag about me," she translated as her father spoke in Arabic. Marko still is working on his English to be able to find work. Sampuor said she wouldn't have made it through, especially that first year, without their support. "They left everything. They came here just for us, so we could get an education," she said.
Her family lived in Baghdad, where her dad had a liquor store. As a Christian, he was permitted to sell alcohol in the Muslim country. Then war came.
"It got better at first when they got rid of Saddam Hussein. The first years were good. Then it got worse. There was lots of killing," she said. Selling liquor suddenly became a risky business.
Sampuor said she was happy there, but likes it here. "There's freedom, safety here," she said, not to mention reliable water and electricity.
Come August, she'll be attending California State University, Stanislaus, which she said she chose to stay close to her family. She plans to follow a liberal studies major, then get a teaching credential and master's in psychology. Her goal: returning to the Davis Language Institute as a counselor, to help other newcomers.